Rudolf Diesel has a lot to answer for.
London’s streets are filled with buses, taxis and vans powered by the compression engine he invented. But they are also filled with the nasty side effects of diesel fuel – fine particulate exhaust emissions that are creating a major health crisis, and make London a dirty, noisy city.
The problem is getting worse. While London’s bus passengers have benefited from more buses on our roads, their lungs have not. The London’s bus fleet has grown from less than 6,000 in 1998, to more than 8,500 today.
That’s why the London Assembly Liberal Democrats have recently launched our plans for making The Big Switch with the goal of turning all London’s buses and taxis electric by 2020. The Big Switch reduces air pollution and saves lives; it makes economic sense and saves money; and it cuts emissions too, helping meet CO2 targets.
Everyone living and working in London is affected by the air pollution caused by London’s traffic. Research for Mayor of London suggests that particulate pollution led to 4,200-8,400 premature deaths in London in 2008.
The Government has estimated that the economic cost of the health impacts of poor air quality in the UK is around £15 billion – equating to about £2 billion in London. High levels of air pollution in London are breaking EU health based limits for levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulates (PM10), which could lead to significant fines.
Almost half of particulate air pollution in central London is caused by London’s taxis, buses and vans. So switching all London’s buses and taxis, and the vast majority vans, to electric will reduce by an estimated 25% the air pollution suffered by Londoners – and even more in central London, with a 65% cut in dangerous nitrogen dioxide emissions in Oxford Street.
Bang for buck it will deliver, as it tackles head on the most polluting vehicles on London’s roads.
The wider environmental benefits include a reduction in CO2 emissions of over 300,000 tonnes, and as electric vehicles are far quieter than their diesel counterparts making The Big Switch would have an amazing effect on people’s quality of life. Our plans would more than halve noise levels on many roads.
The Big Switch makes sense because of electric vehicles’ cheaper running costs. At the heart of our plan is the simple fact that electricity is about one fifth the cost per mile compared to diesel. At the same time the cost of battery technology is coming down rapidly, as production increases.
Based on typical mileage, we calculate:
- Over three years an electric taxi driver will be £8,000 better off.
- An electric bus would save £17,000 in fuel costs per year.
- An electric van operator will be £3,000 per year better off a year in overall cost savings
To put this in context, our research shows that bus operators in London will spend £1.7 billion on diesel fuel in the next 10 years. The power for electric buses would cost much less: £280 million. It makes sense to spend that money on more efficient electric buses, not waste it on diesel.
Our plan would pay for itself, as the higher upfront costs of electric vehicles are offset by the savings made in fuel costs. These fuel cost savings, particularly in the bus network, also cover the capital costs of the scheme. In the longer term, making The Big Switch may help make public transport more affordable – a critical issue considering how much bus fares have already risen in the last three years.
And the plan is based on technology that already exists. Electric buses already operate around the world, from Durham to Italian cities.
Those already in operation are single deckers – but it’s worth remembering that a third of London’s bus fleet, some 2,700 buses, are single deckers, and we’d start by switching them to electric. And our plan pays for a big investment in charging points, including installing rapid chargers at bus stands and taxi ranks, which would enable vehicles to charge during the day.
The viability of electric buses contrasts to hydrogen buses – which in addition to being immensely expensive (at £7.5 million for five) have been off the road for almost two months this year.
Finally, the experts believe the scheme can work, from vehicle manufacturers to campaigners. Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London, describes The Big Switch as a “practical and financially attractive way to protect public health and achieve full compliance with air quality laws throughout London.”
The Big Switch is possible, but it needs a Mayor with the ambition and vision to make London truly one of the best, most sustainable, cities in the world.
Mike Tuffrey AM speaks for the Liberal Democrats at City Hall on finance and the environment. He’s running to be Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London.